Falsely Accused of Harassment

Question:

I’ll get right to the point: I’ve been falsely accused of sexual harrasment at work. Now, this individual is watching my private “online” life as well in order to search for evidence. I get so angry everytime I hear about it in the local rumor mil that I just want to quit but I know that would just give them the satisfaction of seeing me ousted. The bosses are not on my side and so far there has been no official word. What should I do?

Signed,

Job in Jeopardy


Answer:

Dear Job in Jeopardy:

Your response to the allegations of sexual harassment will depend upon what did, in fact, happen, what you can prove and disprove, what the complainant can prove and disprove, your company policy about such accusations and/or behaviors and your work situation before the complaint was made. Those are a lot of elements, but all will apply.

First, keep in mind that as frustrating as it may seem, when a complaint such as this is made, your bosses should try to stay as uninvolved personally as possible. They should be investigating the matter without supporting either person. Even if you are exonerated they may feel they can’t be overly congratulatory to you, since the employee who complained will probably still be there and will be watching to see how things are handled. She (or he) may be sincere in the belief that you were harassing them, whether or not you are found in the wrong. If he or she was not sincere in believing you did something harassing, the complainant would be even more likely to watch reactions of the bosses.

So, your bosses may feel differently than you think or they may not.

Next, is the complaint itself. I will accept that you have been falsely accused, since you say you have. But keep in mind that often we do or say things that we did not mean to be harassing, inappropriate, hostile or embarrassing, but under the law or based on policy, it fits in those categories. That is especially true when we’re talking with someone at work who is not an ally to begin with.

I assume you have asked any witnesses present to make a statement about what they saw or heard. If this situation involves one person’s statement against yours you may be able to show, based on past performance and behavior, that such actions would not be the norm for you.

You seem to indicate that general opinion is against you. That may indicate more to this than you think. It may be that other employees believe the accusations or have themselves had issues with something you have said or done but didn’t take action. If you have a solid, positive relationship with other employees you may want to ask them to help you by not gossiping about this since it is still under investigation. Or, you may want to ask your supervisors if they could help stop the rumor-mongering that is going on, since it harm your reputation and is making it very difficult to focus on work.

As far as the complainant watching your private online life, I don’t see how that could happen unless you have contributed to forums or other groups where your name would be attributed to comments.

I doubt the complainant told you she was checking on you, so I assume someone else did. You should let your supervisors know that the complainant is doing her own investigating and is harming your reputation by letting your co-workers know about it. Cite the name of the person who told you about it. That person may not want to be involved, but became involved by talking to you about it.

You mention there has been no official word about this matter. That may or may not be unusual based on how long ago the complaint was made. If longer than two weeks ago, consider sending a letter to HR or to your boss, asking for information. Say you are very concerned about it and want to know if they have a date for concluding the investigation.

If you feel you can do so, talk openly to your immediate supervisor about your worries over this. He or she will probably not be able to discuss the investigation, but they may be able to tell you a time-line for finishing it. At least you could convey that whatever the result, you want to continue your job and you want to put this behind you as soon as possible.

You need to be prepared for either a positive or negative result. If there was absolutely no action on your part that can be proven or even twisted to make you appear in the wrong, it is unlikely you will be found at fault, merely on one person’s word. But, if there was something you did or said, once or over time, that could be misunderstood or found offensive or intimidating, you may need to accept that you were wrong, although unintentionally.

What happens then will depend upon your company’s policy. Some have a zero tolerance for such things, which usually means dismissal. Others accept some mitigation or explanation but have a disciplinary program.

One thing you can do in the meantime is to focus on doing your job well and trying to live in a way that reduces the gossip that is swirling around you. That may not be easy; and sometimes may seem impossible. But you can bet others are watching you to see how you respond to this. You may have noticed, if someone handles a tough situation well, even a misdeed can be forgiven and forgotten over time.

If you did nothing wrong, hopefully that will be proven. But even then, you will need to react with civility and with acknowledgement of the need for an investigation when such complaints are made. There seems to be no point in quitting, unless you know something will come out that will be damaging. If you don’t think that will happen, hold on, be strong, be courteous and civil and be the kind of person others want to support when the going is rough, as it obviously is now.

I know such an accusation is both frustrating and frightening, given the possible results. I think you should stay as informed as possible about what is happening and what you can expect.

I hope this provides you with some thoughts that will be helpful. If you have the time and wish to do so, keep us informed about what occurs.

Sincerely, Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina Lewis Rowe